Overcast skies lay over the Bank of America Columbia City branch on March 23, 2011 as just more than a dozen protesters gathered outside. They varied in age, clothing and background, standing in a row outside massive glass windows and under looming security cameras. One protester, a woman with greying hair and a red plaid scarf wrapped tightly around her neck, held a sign that read “End Corporate Welfare.”
In the context of the mortgage crisis and countless foreclosures in South Seattle, the congregation of Valley and Mountain Church felt compelled to criticize the unethical practices of Bank of America. With illegal foreclosures, the robo-signing scandal, a disproportionate amount of loans to White community members and income tax evasion, the church saw the bank as a symbol of institutions harming their community.
Valley and Mountain convener Rev. John Helmiere stood at the woman’s right wearing a knit hat and a button-up shirt. The owner of the gym across the street approached him. Recognizing Helmiere immediately, he began to talk with Helmiere about the protest. While the man was shocked to learn that he had paid all his taxes and this bank refused to, he was even more shocked to find out the protest was led by a local church.
This was the first Table Turning Monday, a faith-based direct action led by Valley and Mountain Fellowship Church. The decision to stage a protest on Holy Monday seemed obvious to the congregation. They wanted to highlight the social and economic activism of Jesus’ life, and found that the Holy Monday narrative paired with this perfectly. Holy Monday falls between Palm Sunday and Easter and celebrates his activism in Jerusalem. The week is a Christian commemoration of the actions of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion.
The Monday after first arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus walked into a temple and flipped the tables of moneylenders inside the building. These lenders were lower-level officials in a corrupt financial system run by elites who marginalized the poor and needy, using religious institutions to further their cause. Jesus’ action outraged the elite and was one accusation that led to his death and, in the Christian tradition, his resurrection. For members of Valley and Mountain, protesting Bank of America followed this tradition of criticizing powerful economic institutions.
The annual event has grown in size and magnitude since 2011. Helmiere has been in conversation with secular organizations and churches of many denominations. He said that the excitement over this event is overwhelming at times. More than a dozen churches so far have reached out about organizing their own events this year. The idea of combining faith and action grew from conversations he had with the local community after moving to South Seattle. This process started with building the community and physical space of the church. Direct action followed organically.
“Our biggest metaphor is that we’re a compost bucket,” Helmiere said. “And compost is this different little bits of stuff that get pulled together and then there’s this energy that gets generated from that gathering that transforms things into the soil. The soil is only useful if it’s integrated into the world to help other things grow.”
For Dr. Mark Markuly, dean of Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, this action is part of a longstanding prophetic tradition in Christianity, Judaism and other communities of faith.
“It calls everybody to a deeper reflection on what values are most central to our common human being,” Markuly said. “Using the metaphor of turning over the tables was part of the drama of Holy Week. It was part of precipitating symbolic acts that ultimately led to Jesus’s condemnation by the Roman Empire and eventual crucifixion.”
These actions are nothing new. Religious organizations across the world have keyed into social injustices and economic wrongs, including the peacemaker role of the Catholic church in the Philippines during the Marcos regime to the Christian rooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Islamic rooting of Malcom X in the civil rights movement. Markuly sees this as an integral part of any faith tradition.
Markuly explained that this concept is integral to the call to action in the Christian tradition.
“You can find other examples throughout the continents where religions, Christianity specifically, connecting with liberational dimensions,” Markuly explained, “engaging society in a way that invites people of faith and people of goodwill to reflect more critically on what they’re participating in, what they’re doing within society, the way public policy is structured to either help or hinder those citizens.”
One of the secular organizations that works with Valley and Mountain in their education and action is European Dissent. A group of anti-racist organizers working in solidarity with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and other organizing bodies, this organization is a part of the movement to dismantle White supremacy and build racially just communities. They first connected with Valley and Mountain in 2015, when the congregation wanted to work with the No New Youth Jail movement. European Dissent helped them in organizing, conversations and self-reflection.
Since 2011, the event has changed each year. They focused on different banks and causes during the foreclosure crisis until 2013. After that, they moved to address the investment of Seattle University in fossil fuel corporations in 2014 and worked with Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) to call out construction company Howard S. Wright’s involvement in building the new King County Youth Jail in 2015. This year Valley and Mountain will continue to work with the No New Youth Jail movement.
The choice to work with the No New Youth Jail movement seemed obvious to members of Valley and Mountain, as it represents restorative justice and a liberation tradition.
For Claire West, an organizer with European Dissent, there is a need for these conversations in faith communities, and especially in predominately White faith communities. She emphasized that organizing, particularly that of people of color, has been decades in the making. For those becoming involved in movements toward racial and economic justice, there is a need to do more than just attend one event and to fundamentally change your way of being.
“I just have a lot of personal resistance to patting ourselves on the back or getting a lot of attention for being church and doing what church is supposed to do and has always been intended to do. In some ways, it’s about time,” said West. “We’re showing up as Christians.”
For Rick Derksen, an organizer with European Dissent, this process is essential to any sort of organizing. In conversation with his personal faith community and the broader Seattle community, he sees a need to fight passivity and recognize how these systems harm both the oppressor and the oppressed.
“I think that’s part of our challenge, as anti-racist organizers, is to work with other White folks in our faith communities and beyond to recognize that, acknowledge that, and actually feel that in our beings and in our communities,” Derksen said.
Recognizing their role in a larger movement, Valley and Mountain focuses on deconstructing both their own differences in class, race and identity within their congregation, and on shifting the view of the church itself. For Helmiere, this starts with fighting against a history of church passivity toward injustice.
“Kindness has its place but Jesus is also unflinching, unapologetic about calling out real injustice. And I think real love does that,” Helmiere said “Real love makes you fierce about protecting the vulnerable. It should.”
A Jewish man of color, a political prisoner executed by the state, an advocate for the most oppressed in society, and an active economic rebel, you cannot separate activism from the life of Jesus. Helmiere explained that in this context the role of the church is not just to bandage the wounds of the downtrodden, but to stand up against that abuse in the first place.
As Helmiere sees it, the focus of these past six years of community building and activism is to uplift voices. Distancing himself from the trend of organizations to speak for others, he wants Table Turning Mondays to empower people whose voices have been suppressed. A small but growing movement rooted in spiritual tradition, the not-so-radical religious activism in Table Turning Monday acts as a base for the voices of the marginalized and oppressed.
“We are not a powerful, rich, or large church, we’re a ragamuffin church; a bunch of spiritual misfits and artists and activists and regular people, who aren’t used to confronting the halls of power.” Helmiere said. “Yet we stand up for what we think is right and we encourage people to do the same.”